Novelos bringing light to the darkness for cancer victims

The following is the sixth in a series of features on Wisconsin companies that are doing promising work in the global fight against cancer.

Steve Jobs was fond of saying that his goal was to “put a dent in the universe.” To the extent that anyone can actually make such an indelible mark, Jobs succeeded, and his sense of mission kept him engaged until his death from pancreatic cancer late last year.

Madison’s Jamey Weichert might not brag about recalibrating the cosmos, but his goals are arguably even loftier than Jobs’.

As Novelos’ chief scientific officer, Weichert has his sights set on putting a sizable dent in cancer, and that supplies him with no end of motivation and energy.

“I can’t wait to come to work every day; I don’t know how many people can say that,” said Weichert. “Believe me, we have worked hard. We have an amazing group of employees that are so dedicated, and all of us have had cancer in our immediate families, so there’s a real driving force for this – for everybody, basically.”

While it remains to be seen whether Novelos remakes the world of cancer treatment, its story so far points to a shining light at the end of the tunnel.

Weichert originally conceived the idea for Novelos’ innovative therapies while at the University of Michigan. He came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1998, then started Cellectar, Inc., which merged with Novelos, then a Boston company, last April. The combined company then moved to Madison, where it remains one of the most promising pharmaceutical firms in the state.

Its suite of drugs – known by the shorthand LIGHT, HOT, GLOW2, and COLD –
have shown tremendous potential for targeting cancer cells and significantly upgrading the options cancer patients have. While COLD is more of a classical chemotherapy drug, LIGHT and HOT take what Weichert refers to as a “diapeutic” approach – combining strong diagnostic and therapeutic capabilities.

In short, Novelos’ drugs can make tumors glow.

“It’s a unique approach to cancer imaging and treatment, and by the way, it does do both,” said Weichert. “Most chemotherapy agents used today, there really is no way to quantify their targeting efficiency on tumors, and they basically inject into a person at a near toxic level and hope for a response, whereas we take it a step further in the fact that we can image our agent four-dimensionally, that’s three dimensions plus time.

“So we can actually quantify where this goes, how effective it is, how efficient it is in targeting each person’s tumor and multiple tumors, and then we can theoretically take that information and calculate what an appropriate therapy dose would be if we simply switch the radioisotope on the molecule from an imaging isotope to a therapy isotope. That’s why it’s different from what’s out there now.”

A broad spectrum

While LIGHT and HOT theoretically would give doctors the advantage of seeing the tumors before deciding on the appropriate therapy, they also potentially have a very broad application, according to Weichert.

“In pre-clinical models, we’ve had success in over 50 different cancer types, and so it’s a very broad spectrum potential here,” said Weichert. “We have to translate those mouse data into human results, but it has a very broad spectrum potential that most agents in development don’t have.”

Novelos’ drugs appear to target cancer cells by seeking out what are known as “lipid rafts” – what Weichert describes as “thickened areas on a membrane that harbor a lot of cell signaling architecture for the cells.”

Cancer cells have an overabundance of lipid rafts, as do cancer stem cells – a fact that seemingly gives Novelos’ approach another advantage over other therapies. According to the Novelos website, the company’s therapeutic compounds appear to offer “the potential for a paradigm shift in cancer therapy by providing efficacy versus all three major drivers of mortality in cancer: primary tumors, metastases, and stem-cell relapse.”

Needless to say, that degree of precision in targeting – coupled with the fact that Novelos’ drugs potentially affect so many different cancer types – could end up having a profound effect on cancer patients’ outcomes.

“It doesn’t happen with pre-malignant cells,” said Weichert of his drugs’ ability to target cancer cells. “You’ve heard of colon polyps. Those are pre-malignant tumors. It doesn’t go into those, but whatever happens when the cells become malignant is involved in the uptake and attention of these agents. So you do a single IV injection and it will literally find tumors anywhere in the body within about a day. It takes between 12 and 24 hours for it to localize in these tumors, but it’s clear. It will find them where they’re at. It doesn’t matter if they’re primary, if they’ve metastasized. That’s the very unique thing about this agent.”

Earlier this month, Novelos announced that it had completed the second cohort in a dose-escalation trial of HOT, and it has successfully completed the first cohort in a lung cancer trial for LIGHT. In June, it also successfully dosed three patients in a Phase 1-2 PET imaging trial of LIGHT.

Another one of Novelos’ drugs, which the company is moving up on its priority list, is GLOW2, which Weichert believes could revolutionize cancer surgery.

“You put a beacon, basically a fluorescent probe, on this molecule and inject it the day before they do surgery,” said Weichert, who notes that the drug is not radioactive but merely optically active, glowing “like fireflies glow.”

“We can light up the tumor, we can make the tumors basically glow,” he added. “In real time, surgeons can just excise out the glowing tissue, and they’re extremely excited about that.”

A light of hope

While the potential of Novelos’ drugs is obvious, Weichert says they’re at least a couple of years away from going to market. That said, investors have placed considerable faith in the company and its prospects. The company has raised about $44 million in capital, including $17 million from angel investors.

While the potential for big returns exists with any promising cancer therapy, that’s not the whole story. According to Patrick Genn, Novelos’ vice president of investor relations, investors’ interest in the company goes far beyond concern about their stock portfolios.

“A lot of our shareholders, I believe, have invested because they really believe this will have an impact on treating cancer,” said Genn, “and that’s as much a motivation as the return on investment.”

It’s also what primarily motivates Weichert.

“We’ve actually had investors die of cancer after they invested – they didn’t have cancer, they got it and died,” said Weichert. “This is extremely bothersome. We take every one of these things personally, to be honest. We’ve all had mothers and parents who have died from cancer since we’ve started this. So it’s just not really hard to get motivated to do something here.

“I have a hard time dealing with it, actually, because it hits everybody. And when I give a presentation, I say, ‘Look to your left or right, because one of you two will get cancer sometime in your life. … We don’t have any problem motivating people, because everybody I know has had someone in their family who has had cancer.”